A thought on contract writing work

I tend to keep the lines of communication open for contract technical writing jobs, because one never knows when you’ll want more work. (And even if I don’t want something, I can forward it to friends who are looking for work and help them out.)

Only rarely do job listings give a pay rate, so if I see something I like, the first question I always ask recruiters is “How much does it pay?” This question gets a surprised response about 2/3 of the time and usually some shuffling around. The usual response is “How much do you want?” to which I say “I know what my rates tend to be, but I don’t have enough information to make a determination about what they’re asking me to do on the job based on the job description you sent me. But I would like to find out what the job’s budget is so that I can find out if it’s worth my time to apply. It’ll be in both our interests to not waste our time by having me apply for a job that’s going to lowball me.”

And at that point, they’ll usually come across with the hourly rate or something a lot like it. (Unless it’s some pump-and-dump Indian recruiting firm.) Enough for me to make an informed decision, anyway.

If they’re still being coy or pretending to be shocked (Gods know why at this point), I then say “I’m not in this business for my health. I’m in this business to make as much money as I can. So I’d like to find out what this is going to pay to see if it’s worth my time.” If they’re still dancing around about money, I tend to write ’em off at that point.

Always remember: We are in this business to make money as a rule. We’re selling our skills. We are not doing this for the honor of contributing to some company’s bottom line at the expense of our own. We are making money and, by extension, we are making as much money as we reasonably can. Stuff we do for free is something else entirely.

Thoughts on being rich and famous

I talked to a judge recently who’s working on a mystery novel based on personal experiences while a prosecutor. (I’m not saying anything more than that because it’s not my story to tell.) I may be able to give him a bit of help in figuring out the process for writing and selling a mystery novel, which’d be nice. I wanted to share a thought or two in passing on writing and its compensations.

I’ve always been fond of a quote from Dr. Johnson, quoted in Boswell’s Life of Johnson: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” (Isn’t it amazing how some things don’t change over the centuries?) Boswell cites Johnson as responsible for any number of timeless epigrams (many of which seem to be frequently attributed to Oscar Wilde roughly a century later), including this particularly apt one: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” It’s worth looking up some of Johnson’s other thoughts, particularly if you’re a writer. He’s got a lot to say about writing and money, particularly along the lines of how good it is to conjoin the two as much as possible. Along the same lines, someone also once told me that Judith Merrill (noted science-fiction writer) said, “Writing books may get you fame and glory–not money, mind you, but fame and glory.”

All these sound bites about writing and money got me to thinking about my own thoughts on fame and fortune. But the most signficant example of what to focus on happened to me directly. They aren’t nearly as epigrammatic, sadly, but they make for an okay story naytheless:

Back in November 1988, I was in the middle of my 2nd & 3rd books at the same time (hot tip: do not try this at home!). I remember that I was feeling very full of myself and I can still see myself coming home from my day job, walking through the front door, and saying to my then-wife something fatuous about “being rich and famous.”

She looked at me and said, “You know, Bill Murray was being interviewed on TV today and the interviewer started flipping him a raft and said ‘You know, you haven’t handled fame very well.’ And Bill Murray got real bristly and looked right into the TV camera and he said ‘All you boys and girls out there in Television-land who think you’d like to grow up rich and famous, let me give you a piece of advice: Try “rich” first, and see if that doesn’t do it for yuh!'”


Ever since then, I have held to the idea that I would do what I could to go for “rich” first. Fame (well, “notoriety” perhaps) I figured I could take care of on my own.

Being a hack

Donna Barr posted a few things on Facebook recently about being a hack, which she says is a good thing. I tend to agree. Work is work, after all, and 99% of what we all do is not Great Art or Great Literature, as the case may be.

Decades ago, Harlan Ellison wrote the introduction to a short story in a collection of short stories. He said that he’d hated the character, hated the story, hated the resolution, and sold it to a magazine he didn’t normally do business with… but he made 3x as much money for this as he would’ve otherwise. His final paragraph of this brief exposition was “Moral of the story: I may prostitute my art, but at least I’m not a cheap whore.”

John Ciardi once wrote:

“Dear Virginia:
See the poet.
The poet is fat.
The poet is fifty.
The poet is making a living.”

There is no sin in hackwork. It pays the bills. Sometimes, rather handsomely.